From big-box store to indie garden center, where do those plants come from? – The Virginian-Pilot

Q. How do plant retailers in the area select the plants they choose to sell, and the sources of the plants? I read plant magazines and find the wonderful plants I’d love to try, but they never show up here. Are plants found in independently owned garden centers locally grown? What about the big-box stores? — P. Johnson, Chesapeake

A. Each year, gardeners are tantalized by the pictures and descriptions of new plant varieties in seed catalogs, gardening publications, and newspapers’ home and garden sections. As you’ve suggested, the reality is that finding these is often easier said than done.

So where do these new wonders come from? These are the fruits of plant breeders, at universities and multinational horticultural companies all over the world, whose goal is to provide us with improved and novel varieties.

Have you heard of Ball Horticultural? Back in the early 1980s, before coming to Tidewater Community College, I taught greenhouse management and production at Ball Horticultural School, in West Chicago, Illinois. At that time, George J. Ball Co. was better known As a seed company and horticultural broker, supplying seed, plants, grower supplies and expertise to greenhouse growers around the country. Today, Ball Horticultural Co. is a multinational company with sites and partners in 20 countries, involved in breeding, research and product distribution . (A side note: In the 1990s, Ball Horticultural purchased Burpeearguably the most familiar and iconic horticultural business in the country.)

But Ball is just one of many companies all over the world whose aim is to provide us with a continuous supply of improved and novel plants for home and garden each year. Syngenta, Selecta, Sakata Seeds, Benary and American Takii are just a few of the others. Also important are university plant science departments all over the country that have research and breeding programs.

How do these new introductions make their way to the consumer? Annual conferences and trade shows, such as Tropical Plant International and Cultivate ’22, showcase the latest and greatest to the greenhouse industry. Trade shows that cater specifically to the garden center industry include the Garden Center Conference & Expo and the Garden Center Show, for independent garden centers. Greenhouses and garden centers nationwide send their growers and buyers to these shows to keep them abreast of the newest plants and growing technologies.

Each year, the California Spring Trials feature those breeders and others, showcasing their introductions to growers, garden centers and horticulture professionals. University horticulture departments, such as North Carolina State and University of Georgia, conduct extensive field trials, evaluating and comparing introductions. also hold field days, inviting horticulture professionals to visit, and take a look at what is new (and old).

(If you are ever in Raleigh, stop by North Carolina State University’s JCRaulston Arboretum and check out their trials. And closer to home, you can stop by Virginia Tech’s Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center, on Diamond Springs Road in Virginia Beach, and check out their trial garden, maintained by master gardeners.

Some of the plants you find at independently owned garden centers are indeed local. But this is much less the case today. For years the greenhouse industry has been consolidating, resulting in fewer and fewer small to medium sized wholesale growers (and garden centers). Now the area has only a handful.

I know of one Virginia Beach garden center that gets products from a couple local growers but relies heavily on nurseries in North Carolina, New Jersey and elsewhere for its plants. They also told me they rely primarily on their suppliers (growers) to learn about what is new. A few have their own growing operations, far fewer than in the past.

I miss those small operations, where at least some of the plants are actually grown. There is something special about exploring a growing greenhouse and picking out your own homegrown plants.

What about the products found at independents versus big-box stores?

The big-box stores come at you with quantity and price. Their prices are hard to beat — especially at holiday sales. And they have quantity..

But the smaller, independent businesses have some advantages. The first is providing customer service and having staff that is familiar with the products.

Another is flexibility.

Think of big-box retailers as being like the mammoth container ships out on the Chesapeake Bay. It takes them a lot of time to get up to speed or slow down, and a lot of room to turn. These retailers may not buy merchandise for They buy from mega-growers that can meet their large demand. This setup requires contracts made well before the growing season. By necessity, quantity often trumps diversity and novelty.

Independents are more nimble. Think of them as the speed boats out on the bay that move quickly, darting between the lumbering juggernauts. They react more quickly to new purchasing opportunities and customer requests. Because the independents are smaller, they can get material from smaller, more diverse growers, who may be growing some of the newer introductions.

It takes time for propagators to scale up a new introduction to the point that it can be widely available. The simple Unforeseen obstacles — weather, crop failures, labor shortages, supply chain issues — can hinder availability. And sometimes marketing gets ahead of availability in a particular market.

By the way, have you tried to buy an automobile lately?

Send questions to wkspen@gmail.com

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